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Futurist says U.S. entering golden age of agriculture

FARGO - What do cell phones, baby kangaroos and DNA mapping have to do with agriculture?

A lot, potentially, according to futurist Lowell Catlett, a featured speaker Tuesday at the 2013 Northern Soybean Expo held at the Fargo Holiday Inn.

With the cost of buying a home the lowest it's ever been in the United States and the price of food relative to income going down, Catlett said the jump in disposable income is creating oodles of new markets for farm producers to exploit.

"Agriculture is now in its golden age," said Catlett, regent's professor and dean and chief administrative officer at New Mexico State University's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

On the subject of cell phones, Catlett said someday soon they may be used by farmers to diagnose crop disease on the spot.

And advances in DNA science, he said, are making it easier for producers to brand their products and improve quality, all essential, he said, for instilling confidence in buyers overseas.

And baby kangaroos?

Catlett said researchers who explored why baby kangaroos take so long to emerge from their mother's pouch discovered that the longer youngsters stayed close to mom, the stronger their immune systems were when they did enter the world.

The insights gained hold tremendous promise for improving the health and lifespans of many kinds of livestock, according to Catlett, who said the same idea applies to human beings.

Catlett said research shows that people who don't have deep and rich social connections die at four times the rate of people who make and keep close ties with others.

"You want healthy people, you can't separate them from people," he said, citing a study that looked at premature births.

Catlett said researchers found that preemies allowed close contact with their parents - a practice known as "kangarooing" - had better outcomes than those placed in isolation to protect their underdeveloped immune systems.

When it comes to animals, Catlett said it has been common practice for some dairies to separate male calves from other animals to reduce the risk of transmitting disease.

For the separated animals, however, the mortality rate nationally is 30 percent, according to Catlett.

But, he added, an experiment conducted by a herdsman who had heard about kangarooing showed that when male calves were kept in a small herd something interesting happened: the mortality rate dropped to zero.

The ramifications for all kinds of agricultural applications are astonishing, according to Catlett.

"Get ready, folks. You're going to see a phenomenal revolution in animal agriculture," he said.